After almost a decade long hiatus from the world of games (and a brief, yet abysmal foray into the world of cinema), Max Payne is back once again to shake up the third person shooter genre. During his absence, many contenders have come along and changed the landscape of the genre, including Gears of War and Uncharted, both with their own brand of combat and bombastic narrative, and both enjoying great success; so can Max Payne still stand out in such a competitive climate? The short answer is: yes, but read on, and I’ll tell you why.
For those of you who didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy the first two games, titular character Max Payne is one of your classic anti-heroes; the grizzled cop whose life was turned around upon the murder of his wife and daughter by a drug addict. Upon his quest to exact revenge against the people who were supplying the drugs the addict was taking, the story is befitting with its noir backdrop, having Max tumble down the rabbit hole, and his actions turn from righteous to morally ambiguous.
Many deaths and many years later, we return to Max in Max Payne 3, more grizzled, more self-destructive, and – as usual – with nothing to lose. We see Max in his new job, retired from the police and working as private security for one of the richest families in Sao Paolo, Brazil. At first, it seems like an easy gig for Max; watching over rich kids who party all day as he drowns his sorrows at the bar in a tailored suit, but wherever Max goes, trouble’s sure to follow, and true to form, it does. Members of the family are targeted and kidnapped by some of the city’s most dangerous gangs, and Max and his security partner, Passos, are tasked with finding out why they’re being targeted, along the way discovering things are not quite as they seem.
Up until the release of Max Payne 3, many expressed concerns with the game, based on impressions from the trailers, and changes in development. Unlike Max Payne & Max Payne 2, which were developed by Remedy, Rockstar (creators of the Grand Theft Auto series) took the helm, and series creator and original writer, Sam Lake, was replaced by Dan Houser (writer of Red Dead Redemption and most of the Grand Theft Auto series). Initially, people complained that the noir elements which embodied the original games and the change in writing duties were detaching the series from its roots; thus, it wasn’t going to be a Max Payne game. I can say with all certainty that those naysayers are dead wrong. For one thing, noir isn’t just how something looks; a greyscale world do not a noir make. Noir is all about story; it’s about the self-destructive anti-hero, the conspiracy, the hard drinking, the ambiguity, the darkness of the setting, it’s not just about how it looks, and Max Payne 3 nails down noir perfectly.
As for the change in writing duties, Max Payne 3 has a narrative that’s stronger than ever; since the triumph that was Red Dead Redemption, Dan Houser has proven himself to be one of the strongest writers working in the games industry today; he has the ability to make you truly care about the characters you need to care about, and invest in their quest. The story is tightly threaded throughout the entire game, forgoing the comic book stills the past games used as transitions to tell the story, and repurposing them through cut-scenes and Max’s narrative during gameplay. The narrative works as an effective tool that works dynamically with Max’s actions; if you pick up a bottle of painkillers (the game’s health restorative) Max will justify his reasons for picking them up and using them, much like anyone would in the grip of addiction.
Now, to the gameplay; the original Max Payne games pioneered the usage of Bullet Time in its gunplay, a technique which many games that followed it adopted. True to its predecessors, Max Payne 3 reintroduces this mechanic; when you have enough time built up through killing enemies in normal speed, you can slow down time or perform leaps through the air, which gives you greater control of your aiming and take down a room filled with enemies with greater efficiency. You’re not invincible during this time, so you have to keep on moving and be wary of your environment. Thanks to Rockstar’s repurposing of the RAGE engine and its fantastic implementation of body animation, it can cause problems for Max; if you perform a Bullet Time leap too close to an object and leap into it, it can appropriately interrupt your action as you collide with it.
Gunplay is always fun, fast and frantic, and staying true to the original games, Max Payne 3 has ignored the modern shooter trope of regenerative health, and makes the player reliant on a health bar, something that will both challenge players, and make them realise how the modern shooter has a tendency to coddle them. As such, Bullet Time can be the saving grace which can help you make use of those last few bullets and your last slither of life.
Max Payne 3 is also pleasing to the eyes and ears; not only does it offer animations that few games can rival, characters and environments are impressive in both their design and variety; never did I encounter repetitive enemy models, or areas that mirrored another aesthetically. Both Max and his enemies make good use of the world around them, vaulting over railings, tumbling down stairs when knocked back by a shotgun round and even diving through windows. The game also delivers some spectacular set pieces; similar to quick time events in other games, there are moments where the player is forced into Bullet Time (usually during some reckless stunt performed by Max), and you’re tasked to take down as many enemies as possible. They’re always welcome, and never fail to impress.
Max Payne 3 also marks the series’ first entry into the multiplayer realm, and whilst one might see this as one of the ways modern developers haphazardly tack on the feature to increase longevity, this is not the case. Max Payne 3 has a robust, rewarding and most importantly, fun. It includes modes such as deathmatch and team deathmatch (along with versions with higher player counts and larger maps), but it also features some interesting and unique variations. There’s ‘Payne Killer’ where gang members with limited arsenals are tasked with killing two other players who take on the roles of Max Payne and Passos (who are kitted out with more substantial weapons and painkillers), should they kill one of them, they take on their role, and hold on for as long as possible. The ones who attain the most kills as the main characters wins. There’s also ‘Gang wars’, where two rival forces compete against each other; one attempting to fulfil their objective, as the other does their best to prevent them. This mode tends to be the most challenging, as the player count is higher, it’s not just about killing, and it takes place over the space of six rounds.
All in all, Max Payne 3 is a solid return to the series; its campaign feels richer than its predecessors, both in scope and length, lasting around 12-14 hours. Few will feel the need to return to the campaign, once it’s finished, unless they want to complete modes such as score attack or New York Minute (where you have to make your way through a campaign level as quickly as possible without dying once), but for those who don’t, the multiplayer is more than to keep people returning to Max’s world, long after you’ve seen his tale of corruption and redemption reach its thrilling conclusion.